Sealth High School's World Water Week Inspires and Educates

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Posted by Noah Zeichner on
Wed, 04/23/2014

Student Rebuilders: The world water crisis has many complex parts that are all related: drinking water scarcity, food insecurity, declining ocean health, gender inequality and climate change—just to name a few. In this blog post, Water Wisdom is learning about the creative way in which one educator, Noah Zeichner, has been bringing water awareness and action to Chief Sealth High School in Seattle, Washington. Sealth’s "World Water Week’"began as a Local Ideas Festival - the brain child of Zeichner and student Molly Freed after they became Bezos Scholars in 2010, and the program has continued to grow and have a great impact ever since. Read on for a guest blog by Mr. Zeichner to be inspired and learn how you could start something similar at your own school! 

Everyone at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle, Washington was talking about water last month. On a Friday in early March, nearly 300 ninth graders were out on 12 different field trips learning about local and global water-related issues. Some groups visited wastewater treatment centers while others toured rain gardens or helped set up an irrigation system at an urban farm. The Field Experience Day is a core component of the school’s Water, Ecology, and Sustainability Team (WEST) Project, now in its second year.

These ninth grade students all turned their ideas into action. Some chose to teach younger students about water scarcity or lead awareness campaigns in their school. Others raised money for water projects around the world. Through a partnership with Seavuria, a nonprofit organization that connects students in Seattle with youth in Kenya through science and technology projects, these freshmen also participated in a global exchange of ideas. Two Chief Sealth International teachers traveled to Kenya in February to deliver letters from their students and to teach guest science and literacy lessons. Both groups of students have conducted water quality tests in their communities and have shared data with each other.

On March 25th, the Chief Sealth freshmen presented their action projects at a symposium during the school’s annual World Water Week festival. World Water Week was inspired by series of transformative experiences, including a trip that my former student Molly and I took to the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2010 as part of the Bezos Scholars Program. At the conclusion of an amazing week of big ideas and unforgettable conversations, we were charged with creating a local ideas festival of our own. We decided to focus our school’s festival on a global issue of great importance: water.

The previous summer, Molly and I both traveled with the Global Visionaries Leadership Program to Guatemala. During our time in Guatemala, while working on a reforestation project alongside other Seattle students, teachers, and Guatemalan youth, we both developed a deep interest in water issues. We observed Guatemalans using recycled two-liter soda bottles filled with rainwater for drip irrigation and at the same time, we became accustomed to using a much smaller quantity of water than we were used to while staying with host families. We reflected on our experience in Guatemala when designing the festival a year later and we agreed that our school community had a lot to learn about water.

Now in its fourth year, World Water Week features all-school assemblies, synchronous lessons, evening keynote events and family programs, and a student conference. The festival is a student-led production. Three core leaders support several committees, each responsible for a different component of the festival. The forty or so student leaders meet regularly for about five months leading up to the festival. Each year, World Water Week has had a different theme. In year one, the focus was on global water scarcity and local conservation. The second year was food security. Last year we learned about sanitation. And this year, the theme was plastic pollution.

Last year we raised some eyebrows by getting our whole school talking about toilets. We were able to bring Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, from Singapore to be our keynote speaker. He masterfully broke the taboo of talking about toilets with humor. But people quickly realized during the festival that 2.5 billion people lacking adequate sanitation is no joke.

Here’s a video recap of the student conference in last year’s sanitation-themed festival

This year’s topic, plastic pollution, is something that many people know very little about. Every piece of plastic that has ever been created still exists in some form. A lot of plastic ends up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. During our student conference on March 26, plastic pollution activist Stiv Wilson, from 5 Gyres, shared his observations of the Pacific Garbage Patch with all of our students.

One of the most tragic stories of plastic pollution in the ocean is told by photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan. Jordan’s new film, Midway, reveals the thousands of albatross birds on Midway Island who have ingested plastic trash. Jordan gave a riveting and provocative evening keynote presentation of his work on Tuesday, March 25th in our school’s auditorium.

This year, we were very excited to host Students Rebuild at the World Water Week. Students made over 3,000 beads for the Water Challenge during workshops at the student conference and at evening events.

World Water Week has been a powerful leadership opportunity for many students at our school during the past four years. And the festival has taught students and teachers a ton about water-related issues around the world. Most importantly, World Water Week has encouraged youth to see themselves as global citizens and to take action.

If you would like to learn more about how to create a school-wide festival like World Water Week in your own school, here are a few resources:

The Students Rebuild Water Challenge, in partnership with charity: water and Global Nomads Group, will help to bring clean, safe drinking water to those who need it most. Take the Water Challenge today! By May 16, 2014, make a paper bead and mail it in to generate funding for water projects in Tanzania. Every 20 handmade beads will provide access to clean water for one person. This school year, your handmade beads can provide more than 16,000 people clean water in Tanzania because the Bezos Family Foundation through Students Rebuild will match your beads with funding for 41 water projects that serve schools and communities.